Diversity in marketing: a gift or a stereotype trap

Leveraging Diversity for market success represents a huge – and largely untapped – potential. Linking the value of differences to both your customer base and your brand and hence selling proposition can be powerful. But what if the product strategy fails in the first place? Two current examples from Germany/Switzerland and France.

As colourful as life – this is how the cosmetic brand Weleda summarises the nature of its product portfolio. While it is not new to produce a trailer that shows a variety of customers and life situations, where different products create pleasure and joy, the Swiss manufacturer of organic cosmetics has gone one step further. This past holiday season, they created an integrated campaign including TV advertising, billboards, social media influencers and supporting below-the-line activities around the slogan ‘Diversity is a gift’.

Multi-layered D&I messages in mass communication

The slogan artfully covered different communication layers. It responded to the seasonal search for presents while at the same time highlighting the power of the Weleda product portfolio and promoting the awesomeness of diversity as a given phenomenon of humankind. The last aspect was not only supported by the different main characters that were shown in the commercials, it was emphasised on billboards that each showed two people of the same gender yet with other differences (age or ethnicity). “The convergence of text, visuals, brand and product value proposition makes this campaign an extraordinarily positive example of how to use D&I in marketing,” Diversity expert, Michael Stuber, comments. He has been conducting research in Diversity marketing and communication and published a book, articles and several columns on the topic.

When gendered marketing humiliates women

Successful campaigns still stand out today as large parts of the market continue to convey stereotypical images of various groups of society including women. Accusations of sexism keep coming back in waves, outraging the market as shown through hashtag and other campaigns. In this environment, experts wonder how companies can still launch products that are clearly based on a stereotypical perception of women. The harshest criticism is raised when newly created product lines for women suggest that the previously existing products had been and still are geared at male customers. Examples include the pink Kinder surprise (chocolate eggs with toys inside) by Italian confectionery company Ferrero, pink energy drinks or pink beer. These go beyond the generally disputed gendered product strategies that plan separate offers for men/boys and women/girls from the outset.

Bic: Product fails across all product lines

The French Bic Corporation, a global player in all its business areas (stationary, pocket lighters and one-piece razors), came under fierce attack when they launched their ‘pen for her’ product line. Ellen DeGeneres slated the product in her show by saying “we’ve been using man pens all these years” or “they come in both lady colours, pink and purple” and clearly criticised the fact that they were also more expensive than the ‘regular’ pens. The family-controlled Bic company, which is led by 10 men and 2 women (one female family member managing the Foundation and one anglo-saxon CHRO), was not only unimpressed by the market outrage in many countries, they introduced pink ‘for her’ product lines in their two other businesses: pink ‘miss bic’ lighters and pink ‘one lady’ razors. According to market studies, the latter includes the pink tax as it appears to be the same low-cost razor that is also offered – in a different colour – for men. The term pink tax refers to a product for women (often happening to be pink) that is more expensive than the same product is when offered in a different colour (e.g. razors for men or pens for everyone).

Systematically treating women differently – and less favourably

The Bic ‘for her’ product strategy is particularly questionable as each business segment, stationary (36% of Group net sales), lighters (35%) and shavers (23%), already offers different product lines, in which gendered line extensions could be integrated. “[These] might still be criticised by consumers or market activists”, Michael Stuber comments, “but they would not single women out so drastically, nor would they have that strong stereotypical connotation”. In fact, the so-called décor range of Bic lighters offers dozens of collections, including Biker, Books, Drawing, Pin-ups (oops), Cars, Eclipses and even rainbows (including the LGBT colouring) in some markets. Similarly, the iconic Bic Cristal ballpoint pen is already available in dozens of colours and new pen lines were added over the decades. In the non-refillable razor business Bic offers similarly broad product ranges for men or women. Here, it’s not the stereotypical design (guess who got the mint/lime/lavender range) that is criticised by market activists, but the fact that the pink razors for women costed 49% more than the almost identical orange razor for men. For double-bladed razors, the pink tax was found to be 70%.

Bic even failed on International Women’s Day

Bic has some 15,500 employees worldwide and mentions an internal Diversity charter on their website as well as Diversity activities in their Sustainability Report. The company reports the percentage of women in leadership positions to have gone done from 18% in 2014 to 14% in 2016 (20% in 2015). In August 2015, the South African subsidiary of Bic had launched a campaign for International Women’s Day, encouraging women to ‘Look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, work like a boss’. Needless to say that there was a Twitter storm and countless outraged reactions. It reportedly took the company two attempts to post an acceptable response on their Facebook page.

Bic employs people from 89 nationalities, both the Leadership Team and the Board of Directors provide an International image. Of the 11 Board members, 4 are women (36%).



Two positive examples of gender marketing



Sexism in advertising report, legislation and discussion



An analysis of sexism at work, in Germany, in football etc.


Visuals mentioned in the article:

Weleda campaign TV spot http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R3rW_t2vkV8

Ellen DeGeneres on Bic ‘for her’ pens http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eCyw3prIWhc

One of the Weleda campaign billboards